The developments regarding hotels in Saranac Lake are encouraging to those concerned for economic health of the region. A beautiful waterfront facility will be a tremendous draw. If the sale of the Hotel Saranac goes through, that's great news for the whole area. The Roedels aren't afraid to spend to preserve the quality of life in Saranac Lake, and if they are able to secure this once-majestic property, they'll do wonders restoring this cornerstone of Saranac Lake.
Each time I pass the Hotel Saranac, I remember how nice it once was. When it belonged Paul Smith's College, my wife spent time as dining room manager. My son-in-law was the banquet chef for a few years, and my children worked there. I brought bus groups from suburbia to experience the historic hotel, which brings me to my point.
Saranac Lake has the potential to become a group tour destination of renown, which would be an economic boost to all the surrounding businesses, not just the hotels. According to studies done by the National Tour Association, each bus brings between $5,000 to $10,000 per day to the destination in lodging, meals, shopping, entertainment, sightseeing and fuel. People who travel on tours have disposable income and want to have a good time. Baby boomers are joining the retirement ranks, resulting in an explosion of ecotourism. Foreigners from expanding economies make up a large part of the industry, with bulging wallets.
I've worked half my life in the group travel industry and continue to. It's brought me throughout North America; my responsibilities range from driving, conducting, planning and selling tours. Find me a destination that combines natural beauty, history, shopping, attractive lodging, restaurants and consistently available entertainment, and I can sell tours.
With some tweaking, Saranac Lake could be a successful hub of multiple-day group tours. We have unlimited natural beauty. Few places have the combination of unspoiled forests and lakes beneath endless mountains. Fall foliage colors peak earlier in the Adirondacks than in Vermont and New Hampshire, a big draw for groups.
The town has maintained its colorful history thanks to the efforts of Historic Saranac Lake. The Adirondacks as a whole is a great study in the robber-baron period of American history (although an important link to that history will be gone forever if some are successful in ripping up the railroad tracks). Architecture and preserved great camps are of considerable interest to groups; likewise the fish hatchery and VIC. The Almanzo Wilder farm in Burke would be a favorite for "Little House on the Prairie" readers. Great Camp Sagamore, the Adirondack Museum, the Olympic Center and John Brown Farm in Lake Placid are other appealing sites historically minded groups would enjoy. Add Fort Ticonderoga, the Lake George boat ride, Railroads on Parade (Pottersville), and AuSable Chasm or High Falls Gorge, and you've got a very appealing multiple-day excursion.
Tour groups staying in Saranac Lake would find its relative proximity to Ottawa, Montreal and Burlington to be appealing, and the region is a good overnight rest stop between Northeast destinations. Seniors are used to making their trips off-season and mid-week, when other tourists have to work. Spring and fall are busy for group travel, when the hotels aren't filled. Wildwood, N.J., Gatlinburg, Tenn., and Myrtle Beach, S.C., are tourist towns that have benefited by reaching out to groups to extend their seasons.
What Saranac Lake lacks in order to become an attractive destination is consistently available entertainment, suitable for groups, and some sort of sightseeing boat giving access to the beauty of the lakes. I'm not suggesting that the village pattern itself after Branson, Mo., or the Wisconsin Dells, with fleets of "Ducks," but some form of water tourism could open up the natural beauty for the enjoyment of many who otherwise wouldn't enjoy majestic Lower Saranac Lake. I used to bring sightseeing groups to the Songo River in Maine; the locks were a big hit. The Pendragon Theatre, the Lake Placid Center for the Arts, BluSeed Studios and perhaps some yet-to-be-built dinner theater hold enormous potential for drawing buses, carrying around 50 customers looking to spend their money on an evening of entertainment. I've visited many small local playhouses around North America. Consistently available music and drama, as well as educational presentations are a must in order to be a group magnet. Folks want entertainment while traveling.
How then does an area get a share in the group tour market? The primary way is for businesses to get together and host what are known of as "fam (familiarization) tours." The business community unites and packages a sample tour for those who market and buy group tours. They would include tour company and travel personnel, senior citizen group leaders and travel magazine writers. A sample tour is offered at a very low cost in the off-season. The targeted group leaders are given a bang-up experience, with food, local music and sightseeing. Duly impressed, armed with lots of information, they go home and sell the destination to their groups. It requires cooperation, careful planning and being prepared to sell on the spot - no "I'll get back to you soon" kind of approach. Once a few tours come and enjoy the hospitality of a region, word spreads like wildfire. Many travelers belong to multiple groups. Bus drivers and tour escorts share information constantly. Everyone's looking for the next new destination and wants to be able to provide something new and exciting. An added benefit is that each time a coach departs satisfied, 50 more people tell their friends and relatives what a great place Saranac Lake is.
As these exciting hospitality enterprises unfold over the next few months, I'd urge everyone, from waitresses and sales clerks, movers, shakers and powers-that-be to consider the enormous economic potential in being a group tour destination. It could be a real gold mine.
Keith Gorgas lives in the town of Franklin.